Scars of Mirrodin: Phyrexian Poison Review (Part 1 of 2)
Last year’s Zendikar intro packs- recently reviewed here on the site- were something of a disappointment. One of the primary functions of a set’s complement of preconstructed decks is to act as a showcase for the set’s themes and mechanics. The Zendikar decks made two critical mistakes here. First, the sets mechanics were spottily employed. Allies had their deck (The Adventurers), as did Landfall (Unstable Terrain), but Traps and Quests were essentially no-shows. Kicker was rather lukewarmly presented in Pumped Up, but the other decks were essentially Tribal decks with thematic ties to the set.
Secondly, the decks heavily relied on filler from Magic 2010. Take out the basic land, and you may well be surprised to find that one card out of three (33%) of the Zendikar pre-cons was an M10 one. Tapping two mana for a Goblin Piker did very little to reinforce the notion that you were visiting the land of Zendikar, and made for some rather mediocre decks.
Let it not be said that Wizards does not learn from their mistakes, or at least looks to improve their products, for the decks released for Scars of Mirrodin suffer from neither of these drawbacks. For one, these decks feel like you’re playing in Scars, in large part to the very minor role played by M11- a mere 9%! Secondly, the new mechanics get a very strong showing, such as Infect in the Phyrexian Poison deck.
One Sting Closer to Phyresis
Infect is a rather intriguing mechanic, and the decksmiths of the Magic world are still weighing its potential (current wisdom: potentially good, but not supported enough yet- wait for Mirrodin Beseiged). For our purposes, though, we’ll be looking at it as-is and how it works to your advantage when playing Phyrexian Poison.
The fundamentals of Infect need little rehash here- essentially a combination of Wither against creatures, poison counters against players and straight damage against Planeswalkers, Infect is a bit of an all-or nothing strategy. A deck split between Infect nasties and conventional ones essentially bumps up your opponent’s life total by 50%, so it’s seldome something you’ll want to mix and match.
On the upside, since you only need to do 10 poison counters’ worth of damage to your foe, their life total is ‘cut in half’- you only have to get your beasties in half as much to win a game. Combat tricks become all the more appealing (and you see one more reason Might of Oaks perhaps didn’t get reprinted to M11), but we must be cautious there as well- tricks are still as risky as they ever have been, and we can easily get two-for-oned and lose card advantage.
One final factor in favour of Infect is its economy. Because it permanently reduces the size of creatures that block or are blocked by our delightful little disease vectors, we are in effect causing our opponents a loss of resources every time they take a hit. If they’re playing a 4/4 creature that cost them 5 mana to deploy, if we take it down to a 2/2 we’ve eroded their board position (and in essence forced them to overpay… who’d be excited to pay five mana for a 2/2?).
All this should mitigate some of the squeeze we’ll feel for having to pay the mana-cost premium associated with this special ability. But now that we’ve set the table, let’s see how well the deck pulls it off.
Improving on the Design
Beginning with the creatures, let’s have a look at that mana curve:
Obviously, the deck peaks at around turns 4-6 when you get your fourth land drop- despite the presence of Green, there is not a ramp card to be found here, so you’ll be earning your mana the old-fashioned way (one Land at a time). Still, it gives you plenty of options in the early game to establish a board threat. Each of your three 2-drop critters comes with a little ‘trick’ that makes it all the more useful. Your Ichorclaw Myr get larger when blocked, presenting your opponent with the devil’s dilemma of taking a poison counter every round, finding some spare 3/3 to trade with (or finding something bigger that will get much smaller for the experience), or ‘wasting’ removal on a mere two-drop- nice tension, and a great card in the deck.
Next we have the lineup of three-drops, which are your rather quasi-vanilla Contagious Nim; a pair of Cystbearers (identical in every way to the Nim except that, because they’re Green instead of Black, they get an extra point of toughness for free); and a pair of Ichor Rats. The Rats are strong here not just for their two power, but also because they give your opponent a poison counter on entry to the battlefield. Admittedly, the Rats excluded these arne’t the sexiest choices, but for Infect they’re about all we’ve got right now. Expect to see another Infect-themed intro deck for Mirrodin Beseiged.
Our somewhat bland assortment, fortunately, does not extend to the four-drops, although there are some underwhelming choices there as well. The Blackcleave Goblin in particular is woefully overcosted- four mana for a 2/1 tells you that the developers weren’t entirely comfortable with putting Haste and Infect on the same critter. The Tangle Anglers, with their highly asymmetrical power/toughness, have all the look of defensive critters, but carry a nifty trick to let them pick off your opponent’s utility critters or to clear a path for the rest of your swarm by potentially making all your opponent’s blockers gang up on it. The twin Corpse Curs are nice card advantage, and keep the tempo going by keeping your hand full.
Finally, there’s one of the deck’s Rares, the “Infect Lord” Hand of the Praetors. This guy is amazing in the deck, and any serious Infect deck is likely to pack in three more of him. Not only does he make your other Infect critters bigger, but best of all he poisons from a distance on every cast of a new critter with Infect. Since you only have to get to ten poison counters, that’s the same as saying “deals two damage to target player every time you cast a creature spell.” Since every last beater in the deck has Infect, you should make good use of him when he comes out.
Finally, the deck’s sole five-drop is the foil premium card, Putrefax, which is something like a infectious Ball Lightning in Green. Like the Blackcleave Goblin, you’ll be paying a bit of a cost for combining Haste and Infect, but with the equivalent of a 10-power conventional creature the card can be a beating. It also benefits from the deck’s limited recursive suite in the Corpse Curs and singleton Rise from the Grave.
So in summary, we have a bit of a mixed bag here- a very solid front-end that dips off a bit in the middle, but has some nice additions on the back-end. If there’s a weakness, it is that the deck plays a bit like a Weenie deck (most creatures are 2-toughness or less) but isn’t costed like one- you’ll often need to make some smart decisions while trying to outrace a more conventionally-priced opponent who is getting 4/4’s and 5/5’s while you’re still playing 2/2’s.
Supporting all this are your noncreature spells and Artifacts. It’s here the deck seems to lose some of its vaunted focus, and sufferes from a bit of inclination to do everything rather mediocrely than a few things well.
It has horrifyingly bad removal (two Assassinates and two Slice in Twains), some combat tricks (two Giant Growths), some “we threw them in because they have poison interaction” cards (Carrion Call and the awful Relic Putrescence), singleton recursion (Rise from the Grave) and a variety pack of creature-enhancing Equipment. Bladed Pinions are cute, and grant evasion, but the first strike is virtually wasted on our power-shy creatures. Would it have been too much to swap them out for a pair of M11’s Whispersilk Cloaks, who virtually scream for inclusion? (The irony of lauding the set for it’s spartan use of M11 cards in the earlier part of this column is not lost on me, mind). The Strider Harness is so-so but its Haste can be useful, and the Heavy Arbalest is a conditional choice. It’s useless if you’ve got momentum on your side, but a solid option to close the deal if you find the red zone is clogged up. Natually, it requires four mana free each round and two creatures to swap it back and forth from, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem by the time you actually need it.
Given that there are only five cards that require double-mana to cast, the inclusion of 26 Lands is a bit bewildering, but seems to be a nod to the general inadequacy of the deck’s poison creatures, and by inadequacy I just mean their tendency to be overcosted. An opponent can quickly outpace you here, Infect or no Infect, and the two superfluous lands seem to be a nod in the direction of consistency. For the record, here’s how the deck’s curve comes together:
It remains to be seen, of course, how well this toxic concoction comes together. The creatures range from poor to excellent, and the noncreature suite is somewhat disappointing. We’ll see how it performs in the field in two days- see you then!